Muslim woman says she was practicing religious custom when arrested

STRONGSVILLE, Ohio -- A 40-year-old homeless Muslim woman who said she was practicing a religious custom was arrested on misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct after a Sheetz employee called police for a welfare check on a customer in the restroom.

Ameni Bejaoui was arrested at about 8:30 a.m. April 19.

WJW obtained security video from the Strongsville jail that shows the woman speaking with Strongsville Police Sgt. David Tomcho.

"I am Muslim," the woman can be heard telling Tomcho. "Every time I go to the bathroom I take a container of water to wash myself."

Tomcho can be heard telling the woman he is familiar with the custom.

"As soon as you said I am of the Muslim faith I knew exactly what you were doing and I am going to talk to my chief," Tomcho said.

Yet, the charges remain and the woman is due in court May 6.

Paul Cristallo, a civil rights attorney, said he believes the charges should be dismissed.

"She did not steal anything. She did not hurt anyone. She used the restroom and is now criminally charged; that is not right," Cristallo said. "I am sure she never thought she would be arrested in the United States for using the restroom.”

Police Chief Mark Fender released a written statement saying, "from our review the officer tried to have the woman comply with the manager's request to vacate. Unfortunately, she chose not to."

Sheetz spokesman Nick Ruffner released the following statement:

"After being notified of prolonged activity in a restroom in our Strongsville store, Sheetz respectfully asked police to perform a welfare check on a customer to ensure the health and safety of the customer, other customers and employees. At Sheetz, treating everyone with respect is a core value and part of what makes up our DNA. Police acted independently from Sheetz and should be contacted for further comment. It is always our goal to maintain an environment where all employees and customers feel valued, welcomed and safe."

The Strongsville police report stated the woman was "improperly using the women's restroom." Officer Marianna Hansen wrote in her report she asked the woman what she was doing, and the woman said "showering."

"I then walked with her over to the handicap stall and could see it set up as if she was living out of it," Hansen wrote in her report. She further stated there was "wet toilet paper on the seat" and a sponge on the back of the toilet.

The officer said the stall no longer appeared to be sanitary or safe. She said the woman said she had a medical problem and had to wash.

"She was asked several times to leave and refused to do so," Hansen wrote in her report.

The woman, however, told Sgt. Tomcho she asked the officer to give her time to clean up the paper on the toilet and that is when she was arrested.

Strongsville police said they have requested video from Sheetz but were told it will not be available for a few more days.

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